1) One step forward, one step back for Queen of the South
With recent wins against Alloa Athletic, Hamilton Academical and Greenock Morton, Queen of the South’s recent form had indicated that Jim McIntyre’s tendency to tinker had, at long last, unearthed a system that could probably see his side stabilise in the middle reaches of the Championship table. The loss and general level of performance against Raith Rovers, however, would suggest that Queens are still some distance from being able to achieve such a modest aspiration.
Queens began the match at Stark’s Park with the same line-up that saw off Morton with relative ease the previous week. However, defeating an out of sorts relegation candidate at home is considerably different from facing a play-off contender away. On Saturday’s evidence, McIntyre’s idiosyncratic approach to selection has appeared to hinder his side’s chances once again. In the manager’s defence, he does seem to have rectified some of his mistakes from earlier in the season, replacing the hopeless Calum Antell with Zander Clark and restoring last season’s highly praised back four, but it is further forward where problems persist.
With Liam Fox absent from the Rovers midfield, Grant Murray handed youth player Ross Callachan his first start of the season, but despite his inexperience, he and Kevin Moon were just too much for Derek Young and Ian McShane to deal with in the middle of the park. Young was replaced after 35 minutes by Stephen McKenna and although the latter’s introduction gave Queens some added impetus in the central areas, it was not enough to influence the game.
In the wide positions, McIntyre still obstinately fields Iain Russell on the left and Danny Carmichael on the right (despite the latter having featured on the left flank under previous manager Allan Johnston) and neither player looked comfortable. Carmichael in particular played poorly and failed to support full-back Chris Mitchell in dealing with Joe Cardle and the Rovers winger had one of his most productive games for some time.
Queens also opted to play a long ball game, something which the Stark’s Park crowd can testify to as being successful up to a point, but only if selfless forwards who are prepared to run the channels – think John Baird or Gregory Tade – are available. Derek Lyle is not such a player and in truth, the only thing the well-travelled striker brought to the match was a sensational tan. Lyle has scored three goals in 14 league appearances, a very ordinary return, and it seems strange that Russell, a superior forward, is shunted out wide to accommodate him.
Perhaps most concerning of all is their tendency of letting in late, costly goals, with Calum Elliot’s 86th minute winner the latest to add to an unenviable portfolio. It takes their tally of goals conceded in the last 15 minutes of matches to nine (almost half their total of the campaign so far). It is a sign that they are either low on fitness, fortitude, or both.
Jim McIntyre might have addressed some of the problems which blighted his side’s return to the second tier, but if Morton are able to improve under their new manager (whoever it may be), his obdurate refusal to stop placing square pegs into round holes and his inability to harden their resolve could see Queens pulled into trouble at the bottom of the table. SM
2) Defences fail to come out on top in Ayr United versus Stenhousemuir
Saturday’s match-up between Ayr United and Stenhousemuir was always likely to produce goals. The Honest Men’s previously robust defensive record was shattered by Stranraer’s six-goal show in their previous home game, leaving Ayr looking like a punch drunk boxer, while the Warriors’ defensive woes have been well documented elsewhere. Add two of League 1’s most dangerous attacking threats in Michael Moffat and John Gemmell into the mix and you have a recipe for carnage; Ayr fought back from 2-1 and 3-2 down to win 4-3 and usurp their opponents in third place.
Both Moffat and Gemmell were on the scoresheet within 15 minutes; both goals came from the penalty spot; and both goals arose from individual errors at the back. In the fifth minute, Moffat ran onto a lofted Adam Hunter pass but was he felled from behind by former United defender Eddie Malone. His partner Ross McMillan looked better positioned to make a challenge – Malone’s rashness was perhaps exhibitive of a full-back out of position and uncomfortable at centre-half. Nine minutes later and Stenhousemuir were level. Sean Lynch raced onto a Kevin McKinlay throw but found his progress into the box crudely blocked by Kyle McAusland. It was a naive act from the on-loan Rangers youngster, who simply should have stood his ground; Gemmell crashed home the resultant penalty.
There was more defensive calamity before half-time. Alan Lithgow has been one of United’s star players this season, but he was badly at fault for Stenhousemuir’s second goal – Gemmell’s flick should have posed no problems to Lithgow (who was hospitalised with a virus last weekend, an illness that was evident in his lacklustre performance against Stranraer) but his indecision under pressure from Ross McNeil inexplicably allowed the forward to square the ball to the unmarked Sean Dickson.
Manager Martyn Corrigan might have expected his side to go into the break ahead for the first time in the league since the end of August but it wasn’t to be, with his defence again suspect. Michael Donald’s unchallenged header crashed off the upright but as the Stenhousemuir players stood statuesque, the grounded Donald was allowed to control the rebound and prod the ball home past five opponents.
In the 59th minute, Stenhousemuir went ahead for a second time with best move of the match. Left-back Kevin McKinlay was getting forward with greater regularity in the second-half and in a neat move involving Sean Lynch, the pair combined to find Ross McNeil in the penalty area. McNeil was afforded far too much space by McAusland and, with his back to goal, the striker was able to knock the ball into space and shoot across David Hutton and into the net.
Once again, the Warriors were unable to hold on. Kevin Kyle was causing their backline (and Malone in particular) significant trouble and Ayr’s equaliser and winner both arose from the defender being penalised for fouls on the big striker. Anthony Marenghi’s quick free-kick found Moffat, who in turn fed the overlapping Alan Forrest. It caught the visitors unawares and Lynch was adjudged to have pushed Forrest in the penalty box, despite the young winger retaining his footing. Moffat made no mistake from the spot to net his 13th league goal of the season. The final, vital strike came with five minutes remaining – once again Malone fouled Kyle and once again a Marenghi free-kick undid the Warriors defence, with Kyle rising to head home.
Next weekend, Ayr United face Dunfermline Athletic in the Scottish Cup before taking on Rangers at Ibrox. Mark Roberts will go into the ties with something of a selection dilemma: with Kyle McAusland ineligible for both fixtures, the manager is likely to field either midfielder Scott McLaughlin or left-back Gordon Pope in his absence, a move with tends to weaken other areas of the team (his reluctance to deploy Josh McArthur a source of frustration for many – the 17-year-old acquitted himself well in his two first team appearances earlier in the season, one of which was at Partick Thistle in the League Cup). It is unlikely they will keep a clean sheet in either game. Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, welcome Highland League side Fraserburgh – they will not get a better chance to record their first shut-out since mid-August.
Both Roberts and Corrigan need to give serious consideration as to how they can halt their poor defensive displays. While Roberts has cause to regard United’s recent foibles as a blip (put down to illness, injury and suspension), the problems are more endemic at Stenhousemuir. Aspirations of a play-off position at Ochilview are being seriously undermined by a record that just simply isn’t good enough. AG
3) Stranraer are developing into something special
There is something stirring in Stranraer. Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Airdrieonians at Stair Park was the third victory in a row for a side who have lost just one of their previous nine League 1 fixtures, a spectacular run of form which has taken the team into the promotion play-off positions for the first time this season. The turnaround has been remarkable – at the beginning of the campaign, Steve Aitken’s side collected a single point from their first five matches, living up to their pre-season billing as relegation candidates. Yet seven wins in the last two months has elevated them into fourth.
The Blues are a supremely attractive team to watch, and their middle-to-front play is exciting, vibrant and confident. Aitken, who was named League 1 manager of the month in October, has placed an emphasis on attacking football and deploys his players in a balanced 4-4-2 formation. Their link-up play is impressive, as is their off-the-ball running and anticipation.
On the flanks, Sean Winter and Andy Stirling are productive, offering real creativity, while Chris Aitken and Grant Gallagher work well in the middle of the park and push forward at every opportunity. There is plenty in reserve, with Marc Corcoran, Ryan Borris and Steven Bell all capable of stepping up when required. In attack, Jamie Longworth has been a superb addition from Queen’s Park and any questions about the side’s offensive prowess after Craig Malcolm’s summer departure to Ayr United have been emphatically answered. Longworth has scored 14 goals in all competitions, while fellow recruit Martin Grehan has struck nine. Aitken’s 11 from midfield have also been valuable.
For all their attacking play, there are two areas which merit scrutiny. While Stranraer create a lot of chances, they can be profligate – against Airdrie, they should have been several goals clear before Martin Hardie made it 2-1 early in the second half, and against better opposition they may come to regret their wastefulness. A porous defence is also a problem. Competing sides will certainly make chances against a team which has kept just two clean sheets all season and conceded two or more goals on 13 occasions. Tightening things at the back must be a priority if their success is to be maintained.
But for now at least, the Cleyholers are thoroughly enjoying the season and are beginning to turn up in ever increasing numbers. There was a crowd of 461 at Saturday’s match, with all but 31 of them supporting the Blues. A club official was asked when the last time more than 400 home fans came along to a run-of-the-mill league fixture.
“When God was a boy,” came the reply. CP
4) Clyde are legitimate title contenders
It was probably only a matter of time, but East Stirlingshire have been toppled from the summit of the League 2 table. Although they have led the division since the beginning of the season, given their current form – one win in their last six matches – it was perhaps inevitable. But they haven’t been overtaken by pre-season favourites Peterhead or Albion Rovers; no, they’ve been unfixed from the top of the table by Clyde.
It’s been a remarkable season for the Bully Wee. The early outlook was entirely unfavourable, with many predicting that Jim Duffy’s side would spent the large majority of the season skirting around the bottom of the league. Yet 13 games and 23 points later, they find themselves in first place. After beating Annan Athletic on 21 September, the club embarked on an astonishing run of form, picking up 17 points from a possible 24. They are an unfussy, efficient side – they have only scored 15 league goals (only Queen’s Park have netted fewer) but have conceded just 14; with the exception of their handsome 3-0 win over the Spiders, every victory has come by a single-goal margin.
Their 1-0 win against the Shire at Ochilview on Saturday came in fairly inauspicious circumstances. It was a tepid affair that occasionally resembled something coherent but, more often than not was dull and stuffy. Other than Stefan McCluskey’s goal after 72 minutes, an effort which deflected off his shin from six yards, and a handful of Kevin Watt chances towards the end of the match, there was little incident of note. The Shire rarely threatened and the Clyde defence were comfortable, marshalling Kevin Turner with minimum fuss – for all their recent improvements, John Coughlin’s side can look toothless if the striker is out of sorts.
(As an aside, the physical deterioration of Pat Scullion should also be examined. The former Stenhousemuir playmaker was always a fairly robust presence but since moving on to Broadwood, he has morphed from a box-to-box midfielder into a munchy box-to-munchy box non-scoring forward and, with his shaven head, resembles John Hartson in his final days at West Bromwich Albion.)
A Scottish Cup fourth round tie with Stranraer is an unwelcome distraction (given the Blue’s outstanding form, it is difficult to envisage Clyde progressing), but the club begin December with home ties against Annan Athletic and Peterhead. Should Clyde take maximum points from the two fixtures then they must no longer be considered as a long shot for a play-off place; they must be reckoned as potential champions. CGT
5) Albion Rovers are in danger of becoming League 2 also-rans
Four months in and, even allowing for the relatively competitive and compact nature of League 2 (where first and ninth and separated by just nine points), can we now begin to make assertions about the teams least likely to make an impact any impact come May?
Queen’s Park should be immediately discounted. Their abysmal capitulation to Peterhead was one of their worst league performances in recent memory and was an ill-fitting way to say cheerio to Hampden for the next 18 months. Recent improvements on the field over the last few weeks had gone some way to softening the blow of their pending decampment to Aridrieonians’ Excelsior Stadium, but a 0-3 defeat at Stirling Albion and Saturday’s appalling showing has singularly obliterated any optimism. How they fare on the mean streets of Monklands is anybody’s guess, but it’s unlikely they will lift themselves from the foot of the table.
Elgin City, meanwhile, seem too haphazard to pick up and sustain a consistent series of positive results. Coming off the back of a three-game losing streak, City appeared to have collected their fourth league win of the campaign as they led Montrose by three goals to one at Links Park. But with three minutes remaining, they contrived to allow Scott Johnston and Paul Watson to score and three points suddenly became one; the club still toil in ninth.
And what about Berwick Rangers and Albion Rovers? Both sides went into their meeting at Shielfield Park on Saturday in dreadful form – Berwick had last won, curiously enough, against the Rovers on 14 September but their recent results had been poor. A handful of Scottish Cup victories punctuated a dire sequence of draws and losses, and the team had collected three points from their previous six games. As for Albion Rovers, a fortunate smash ‘n’ grab against Annan Athletic was their sole win since 21 September, and they have since gleaned five points from their last six.
Berwick emerged from the contest as victors and swapped places with Rovers in the process, moving in seventh. The club have now collected a total 16 points and sit five from a play-off place. Although there has been little to suggest they are capable of climbing the table, it is worth noting that last season they were in a similar position until late February when an outstanding series of results lifted them into the final play-off place. Their ascent through the league relies on other teams losing (an unlikely scenario in a ten-team division) but it is not unthinkable.
Far more concerning is Albion Rovers’ wayward season. Their summer transfer dealings, the majority of which were of a sound calibre and recruited promptly, rightly saw them installed as candidates for promotion, but it has yet to translate to on-field success. Something’s not quite right with at Cliftonhill: the standard of football is often ugly and attritional, while key players have been inexplicably dropped to the bench or left out of the matchday squad entirely. There were a number of concerns surrounding James Ward’s appointment and on current form, they might just be coming to fruition. CGT